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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

Researchers with the Covid Prison Project talk about how COVID-19 has opened up possibilities for data collection, a new report shows persistent disparities in L.A. County jails, and Colorado’s El Paso County jail sets a grim state record.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown.

Weeks before the first reported cases of COVID-19 in prisons and jails, correctional health care experts warned that all the worst aspects of the U.S. criminal justice system—overcrowded, aging facilities lacking sanitary conditions and where medical care is, at best, sparse; too many older prisoners with underlying illnesses; regular flow of staff, guards, healthcare workers in and out of facilities—would leave detention facilities, and their surrounding communities, vulnerable to outbreaks. Despite those early warnings, even jails and prisons that believed they were well-prepared have seen a rapid spread of the virus. Over the past several months, The Appeal has been examining the coronavirus crisis unfolding in U.S. prisons and jails. Read recent posts.

From the start of the coronavirus pandemic, experts in correctional health care have urged prison and jail systems to collect data on infection rates, testing, hospitalizations, and deaths and to make that information readily available to the public. Some, like California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, have met the challenge, reporting the number of cases in each of its prisons, almost in real time. Other systems have provided minimal or confusing data. Some have provided nothing. UCLA’s Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project, the Marshall Project’s coronavirus tracker, and the Covid Prison Project, which provided the data for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s recent report, have sought to fill in the gaps. 

The Covid Prison Project was started by Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, an assistant professor of social medicine at the University of North Carolina atChapel Hill and Kathryn Nowotny, a sociologist at the University of Miami. Brinkley Rubenstein told The Appeal that they decided to launch the project after realizing that prisons and jails would be hit hard by the pandemic. “And because these settings have historically been under-resourced and not prioritized for public health interventions, we knew that they would not get the attention that was needed,” she said.

The Appeal spoke with Brinkley-Rubenstein and Nowotny about the data they’ve been able to get, what questions it’s prompted, and what the future holds for their project. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Appeal: Many experts have been pushing for more data from corrections officials, but that doesn’t seem to be moving the needle. What’s been your experience?

Lauren Brinkley-Rubenstein: There are still lots of systems that are not providing enough data, and the data is never disaggregated the way you want it—by race, age, and all that stuff we know is really important. But the fact that this kind of data even exists in real time is very unique. To me, that’s the bright spot. It’s not good; it needs to be better, but there’s been this door that’s opened. They’ve proven that they can do it. They’ve proven that they can report it quickly, and I think there’s real value in that. Now you can say, ‘OK, why is there so much else we don’t know, that we’ve never known about these correctional facilities?’ To me, that’s the one thing that I think about when I think about all the things we haven’t been able to do, all the change that we haven’t been able to make. We’ve proven that data’s important, people want to see it, and they can give it to us. 

An irony has been occurring, which is that the prison systems that provide more data about cases tend to get more attention by the media, and it’s not always positive attention.

Brinkley-Rubenstein: That’s the drawback. When you provide really good data, you run the risk of getting a lot of attention that other places aren’t getting because they haven’t done any testing, so their case rates are low but you know it’s artificial. I think there’s this interesting tension here between pressing for transparency and also using data in a way that it’s sole purpose is not to vilify.

Kathryn Nowotny: We can think of it in terms of using data to allocate resources or increase compassionate release. If we have more information about the population and about what health problems they’re facing, for example, then we can use that in evidence-based ways. 

What do we not know that you think is most important?

Brinkley-Rubenstein: We’ve got to have better race data, just because the system is a structural determinant of health that exacerbates racial disparities. It’s a racialized system. The fact that we don’t understand if there are disparities in access to testing, clinical outcomes, who’s getting put in medical isolation that maybe mirrors solitary confinement. We have no idea if there are racial disparities in any of that. I think that’s what we are often most frustrated with.

Has anyone who’s posted that data publicly been willing to give it to you?

Brinkley-Rubenstein: Four states give us some data on race, but in general it’s pretty bad. We have some understanding of cases and the final clinical outcome of death. We have no understanding of intermediate clinical outcomes. Most places are not giving us anything relevant to hospitalizations. A couple of states are giving us statewide totals for the number of hospitalizations, but not by facility. There’s a real lack of information on once people get COVID, what happens? We know if they die, but we don’t know anything else. 

Nowotny: Hospital data, I think, is an underused source because they’re going to have in their electronic health records how someone was brought in and where they were brought from.

Anecdotally you hear about people who return to prison from the hospital and are facing long-term health impacts. Is this data being tracked?

Brinkley-Rubenstein: If it is, it’s unknown to us. We know nothing about that. A lot of states have this category of ‘Recovered,’ but they won’t tell us what that means.

Nowotny: Even something as fundamental as testing is poorly defined by [departments of corrections]. The [COVID-19 in Corrections] Data Transparency Act that was put forward by Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and some other folks would extend to all local jails, state prisons, and federal systems. It hasn’t gotten a lot of traction, but from my perspective, getting that passed would be a huge game changer. 

What are your plans for the project’s future?

Brinkley-Rubenstein: I think we’re going to continue as long as folks continue to give us data. My big idea is to transform this into a national prison data project. Once COVID is under control, I think we’ll try to make the push that there should be more data, in general, and we’ll be the people to categorize it, collect it, analyze it.

In March and April, the number of people incarcerated in L.A. County jails dropped by roughly one-third, the result of early releases and a statewide order to reduce bail for low-level crimes to zero dollars. But a recent count by a group tasked with recommending ways to close the county’s troubled Men’s Central Jail found that the percentages of Black people and mentally ill people in L.A. jails remain disproportionately high. 

“As the pandemic continues, many pre-COVID practices around law enforcement and Court operations have returned and the jail population has correspondingly increased,” says the report, released on Monday by the Men’s Central Jail Closure Workgroup.    

Among the report’s findings:

* Black people made up 29 percent of the L.A. County jail population pre-COVID. They now comprise 31 percent of the population. 

* White people accounted for 15 percent of the pre-COVID jail population; they now account for 12 percent. 

* In the county’s women’s jail, Black women comprised 31 percent of the population pre-COVID. They now make up 34 percent of the population. 

* White women make up 16 percent of the current jail population, a decline from 21 percent, pre-COVID.

The report lays out next steps, which include data analysis to see how many people currently in jail would be better off in a diversion program and whether sentences for certain crimes could be shortened without impacting public safety. 

➤ Early in the pandemic, family members of Hawaiians incarcerated at the Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona warned that a COVID-19 outbreak was inevitable. For decades, Hawaii has been sending hundreds of people to Saguaro to alleviate overcrowding in its own prisons, but Saguaro, a private prison run by CoreCivic, is at capacity. Mass testing at the facility, ordered last week by Hawaii’s Department of Public Safety, found COVID-19 infections in 382 of the 1,123 out-of-state prisoners, with 73 results pending. 

➤ On Wednesday, New Jersey released more than 2,000 people from its prisons, the result of a new law that allows people who are within a year of release to apply for sentence credits of up to eight months, as long as they haven’t been convicted for murder or sexual assault. At least 1,000 more people will be released over the next several months, reducing New Jersey’s prison population—which was hard-hit by coronavirus—by more than a third

➤ While Tuesday’s election saw many victories for criminal-legal reform, Oklahoma’s State Question 805 wasn’t among them. The ballot measure would have barred prosecutors from seeking sentence enhancements for people who had committed nonviolent felonies and would have allowed anyone serving time on an enhanced sentence to request a sentence reduction.   An analysis of the measure showed that it would have reduced Oklahoma’s prison population by 8.5 percent over the next decade.

➤ Beginning this week, Massachusetts correctional officers whose job duties put them in direct contact with prisoners will be required to take a COVID-19 test; if they refuse, they’ll be sent home, WBUR reports. Testing had been voluntary, but outbreaks at four Massachusetts prisons spurred an agreement between the state’s Department of Correction and the union representing correctional staff. 

➤ A drop in the number of people in the Santa Clara (Calif.) County jail has prompted officials to  halt construction of a new $390-million, 535-bed jail. Instead, the facility will be turned into a treatment center for mentally ill people who are incarcerated. The new plan follows reports that jail guards regularly abuse mentally ill prisoners and were responsible for the deaths of at least two. 

➤ The El Paso County jail in Colorado Springs had maintained a low rate of COVID-19 infections for more than six months, but now holds the record for the largest outbreak in a Colorado correctional facility, Colorado Springs Gazette reporter Lance Benzel writes. The outbreak started around Oct. 26 when eight people tested positive. Now, nearly 700 of the 1,229 people incarcerated in the jail, and 51 employees, have tested positive for the virus.